February 05, 2016
Around 4:30 a.m. Friday, sheets of sleet pelted the ground outside the Wells Fargo Center, thus tempering the number – but not dampening the mission – of tailgaters getting their drink on about 90 minutes before Philly’s annual divisive bacchanalia known as Wing Bowl.
Those folks braving the weather, and the thousands of others who would follow their footsteps into the building over the next few hours, are Wing Bowl supporters.
Those folks who felt it necessary to rain judgment down on my Twitter feed (which is their prerogative), and the thousands of others who would philosophically follow in their disdain, are Wing Bowl haters.
For most of the past two dozen years, they’ve danced the same dance and jousted the same joust of passing judgment on one another. I’ve been on both sides of that divide.
Many years – particularly since the death of Fino Cachola, a Wing Bowl competitor I knew personally and the crowd knew as "Chili Dawg" – I was a moderate hater who equated brotastic Wing Bowl to a Mummers Parade, but with many more nearly or fully exposed breasts. But this year, I flipped the script and headed down to South Philly pursuing a “defense of” story.
Sure, speaking to a pair of winners would help set that stage.
That’s how, after gulping down 429 wings before 9 a.m. and sitting atop the Harley Davidson she’d just won (in addition to a nice stack of cash money), I heard a beaming Molly Schuyler swear that her stomach felt “fine.” Those 14 minutes between last wing and conversation worked wonders, she noted.
And that’s how I ended up catching a few words with Penelope Ford, who, sporting a black one-piece outfit with a yellow belt and taped-up hands, bested 124 others to claim Wingette of the Year honors with a backflip into a split on a side stage.
“It feels great,” said Ford, who’s from the burbs. “It was the 'Rocky' theme [that helped me win]. This is Philadelphia, and Rocky is the man!”
The event featured a nearly minute-long celebrity “appearance” by former NBA great Dennis Rodman; a “Can Cam,” which is as prurient as you’d think; thrown eggs; projectile vomit; contestant disqualifications and other things with no ethical defense in the world outside the Wells Fargo Center.
It’s a dynamic that WIP Morning Show host Angelo Cataldi addressed at the event’s onset in saying, sure, we live in an era of amplified political correctness but, whatever, all y’all should “let us have our fun, and why don’t you just shut up?”
With that spirit in mind, I caught up with Dimitry Shchupak, his friend Felix and, several yards away in the Wells Fargo Center underbelly, a lady named Tessa who was representing Club Risque as a Wingette aligned with a competitor who called himself “Moe Train.”
Spoiler alert: They were all having fun.
Let’s start with Shchupak – aka wing competitor Ukraine Train from Langhorne – and Felix, his buddy who dressed up as presidential candidate Donald Trump for the festivities.
Well before he ate 108 wings in the first round – a personal best – the mohawked Ukraine Train was putting the finishing touches on his float since some friends didn’t show up this year.
He started his wing-eating career at Wing Bowl 21, where he said he placed seventh. In subsequent years – including Friday – he failed to advance to the second and final rounds.
“I don’t know if this will turn out much differently this year, but I’ve trained harder than in the past,” he said, getting his capacity up to between 120 and 140 wings. “I start with water, to gain capacity, and then I talked to judges to talk about how best to get the meat off the bones.”
Still waiting for their Wingettes to arrive – in a “Game of Thrones” theme, they would pummel “Trump” during the grand entrance – Felix offered up his positive spin on an event that he was well aware gins up the moralistic haters.
Several years ago, Felix attended, but his pregnant-then-now-ex-wife barred future attendance unless a friend was competing. Enter, the Ukraine Train.
“Here’s how I see the event: It offers an opportunity for positive bonding,” he shared. As for his buddy’s entrance, he noted that, “When Donald comes out, it’s gonna be the best. Yuge.”
For Tessa (no last name given or, for that matter, sought), this year’s Wing Bowl was a first-time experience. She hadn’t come before since she wasn’t working at Club Risque. But now she is, so that afforded her the opportunity to join in on the festivities.
Sporting a blue jacket down past her knees around 5:30 a.m. and black hair curling down to the small of her back, Tessa gathered with her fellow Wingettes near Moe Train’s display.
Even before appearing before the crowd – though she was sure to check videos of past Wing Bowls, she still didn’t know what to really expect – her eyes scanned hallways filled with men dressed as pro wrestlers, in horsehead masks, Amish outfits and Wingettes sporting assorted levels of garmentry.
Tessa was clearly in curious awe. Soon, she would wave to the adoring bead- and shirt-throwing crowd as Moe Train made his way in to an event for which she would dutifully lean over him at the table and provide more wings to help his quest for glory.
Alas, her competitor would not advance either, leaving the team to exit stage left, dispensing hugs as mobile-phone cameras were hard at work.
“Such a broad spectrum of Philly life, isn’t it?” she asked somewhat rhetorically.
That could have just as easily applied to the thousands of people partying before the sun rose as it does to those judging them from afar on Friday, just like they will each and every year to come.
What I learned on Friday is that it doesn’t make you any less classy to just let Dimitry, Felix, Tessa and like-minded folks have their fun, because it’s a cold, slush-covered world outside those Wells Fargo Center doors.